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February 6, 2013

Breaking down BU's 2013 class

The final weeks, days and hours leading up the National Signing Day were nerve-racking for Baylor fans. And while that's likely true for fans of almost every program, the commitments, decommitments and near-switches intensified for Baylor in these early days of 2013.

But with a strong finish -- adding two defensive tackles and flipping an offensive lineman committed to a rival -- Baylor's 2013 class will go down, statistically, as the best since rivals.com began tracking recruiting.

Art Briles has signed his fourth-straight class that ranks inside the national top 50, something Baylor had never done over the previous eight recruiting classes that rivals has ranked. At the time of publishing, Baylor's class ranks 28th nationally, which if it stands would be the program's first class inside the top 30. (For some perspective, just less than 10 years ago, Baylor signed a class ranked outside the top 100.)

So no matter how the events of the last few weeks have shaped this class, just as Baylor's on-field product is improving, so is the off-field recruiting. And that certainly foreshadows even more good fortune for Baylor in the future. Below, we break down Baylor's 2013 class, from the highest-rated signees to the sleepers.



The class-makers
In years past, "class-makers" was usually singular. But Baylor signed multiple players that any program in the nation would be happy to have on their roster.

The most significant is Waco High DT Andrew Billings, who announced his commitment to Baylor mere hours before National Signing Day, then followed through by signing early Wednesday morning. Securing Billings was a victory for Baylor on multiple levels: It kept a local product home; it meant a win over rivals TCU and UT in a major recruiting battle; and it addressed arguably the biggest need position on the roster.

If Billings is class-maker 1-A, then 1-B is clearly Fort Worth Southwest WR Robbie Rhodes, a consensus top 10 receiver nationally by recruiting services. Baylor won his commitment relatively early in the process and fended off a slew of suitors for the rivals250 prospect. He's probably the most-recruited skill position player ever signed by Briles.

Finally, he may not have been recruited as much as those other two players, but West Orange-Stark LB Travon Blanchard just may be the program's most important piece of the 2013 class. He was the glue guy, keeping in touch with both Baylor commits and targets and recruiting players to Waco nearly as much as the coaching staff. Few players in recent history have expressed so much excitement for and faith in a program than Blanchard, who could play multiple positions defensively but might be the heir apparent to Ahmad Dixon at NB.



The instant impacts
You don't dip into the JUCO ranks unless you expect the player to contribute immediately. Navarro DT Terrell Brooks will have that opportunity. Like Billings, he didn't commit until hours before he actually signed, but Brooks will come in and have a shot at a starting job. He has that kind of ability, and Baylor has that kind of need.

Baylor waited an extra year for Hargrave LB Brian Nance (originally a 2012 signee out of Euless Trinity), but his early arrival to campus will allow him to compete in spring practices. And his one year at a prep school gave him the chance to get stronger after recovering from an old high school injury. Expect him to play this fall -- in what capacity is to be determined. He could play MLB, OLB or even defensive end.

The return of Jerod Monk with a medical redshirt will give Baylor two senior tight ends, but Riverside TE Gus Penning will still get a chance to play in 2013 and was a real threat as a pass catcher at the JUCO level after transforming his build by rigorous work in the weight room.

Outside of those JUCO/prep additions, the aforementioned Billings and Rhodes were so heavily recruited that they are obvious candidates for early playing time. How quickly they pick up the systems will determine their levels of impact.



The beef
Baylor needed to address the big men on both lines, and aside from Billings and Brooks, they also added another DT, Allen's Byron Bonds, who should have the benefit of redshirting. Bonds comes from a successful program used to winning, so he also brings that intangible to the table. His coaches also praised his work ethic.

Fort Bend Marshall teammates Darius Moore and Maurice Porter had far different timing when picking Baylor. Moore pledged last summer, while Porter flipped from Texas Tech in the final days before signing day. Moore is a likely redshirt candidate, but Porter has the size and strength to at least get a look in 2013, though a redshirt is also likely.



The "versatiles"
Baylor signed three defensive backs that have experience at both corner and safety, giving the coaches a lot to work with in the secondary. All three are listed as safeties, though SA East Central's Austin Jupe would give Baylor a tall, rangy (yet still fast) cornerback, while Irving MacArthuer's Taion Sells has the more traditional build of a cornerback. Expect Cypress Woods DB Alfred Pullom to stick at safety, the position he played most in high school.



The home-run threats
Aside from Rhodes, Baylor landed two talented, fast recruits who could have futures as scoring machines. Quan Jones averaged nearly 20 yards per reception this past season, scoring 12 times through the air for Wylie East.

Despite playing for a two-win team, RB Johnny Jefferson was just about unstoppable this past season. He rushed for 1,578 yards and 18 TDs, providing the bulk of the offense for Killeen Shoemaker. He has great size for a runner and should benefit from a redshirt in 2013, but with Baylor's backfield likely to open up in 2014, Jefferson will have a great chance for a lot of playing time as a redshirt freshman.



The pass rushers
Three players will join the roster that have no shortage of speed that could be best utilized by getting to the opposing quarterback. Frisco Centennial DE K.J. Smith was one of the first two players to commit to Baylor and stayed with the Bears despite a growing list of suitors. He had an excellent senior season and perfectly fits the mold of a speed-rushing defensive end.

Rockwall's Raaquan Davis and Fort Worth All Saints' Xavier Phillips, meanwhile, both played linebacker, but both were excellent in getting in the offensive backfield at the high school level. Like Smith, both players continued to receive heavy interest from other major programs but kept their longtime commitments to Baylor through national signing day.



The projects
Art Briles called him "the fastest man in America," so he'll have a good time figuring out where to play Katy CB Kyle Fulks. He could stay on defense, but it will be tempting to try him at inside receiver.

The other end of the battery with Rhodes at Fort Worth Southwest, former QB Wesley Harris will find a new position at Baylor, either in the secondary or joining Rhodes at receiver. Meanwhile, Chris Johnson will definitely remain at QB, but the Bryan product probably needs a bit more development before he's ready to contribute. He played in a run-first program until his senior year and also battled injuries. Arriving this spring, though, will give him a head start.



The sleepers
His commitment kind of came out of nowhere, when he wasn't on many radars, but DC Phil Bennett personally identified Hutto DE Tanner Thrift and will have time to work him into his system. DeSoto LB Taylor Young made a late arrival to Baylor, not getting recruited by the Bears until the calendar flipped to 2013. But Baylor obviously loved the production from this short (yet fast and strong) linebacker, named the state's 5A defensive MVP after a stellar senior season.



Final Thoughts
There were some nerves among Baylor fans - even with a solid class already - as Rami Hammad and Dionte Savage slipped away. Then Baylor's staff closed with force, landing defensive tackles Andrew Billings and Terrell Brooks, offensive guard Maurice Porter and linebacker Taylor Young. It goes without saying that spotting Robbie Rhodes and getting on him early and making him the star of this recruiting class worked to perfection. The Bears were able to hold onto Rhodes by convincing him from Day 1 that he's their guy. Travon Blanchard already has leadership skills by committing early - way back in February - and helping to convince guys that Baylor is the place for them. Kyle Fulks is a star in the making. I love defensive line class. The best class Art Briles has brought to Waco. No question.
-- Todd Wills, publisher

What struck me was how unified this group has been since the commitments started in January of last year. Everybody genuinely seemed to get along with each other and appeared to check in on each other frequently. Don't underestimate what that means to the program moving forward. Several of them have talked about winning a Big 12 championship. They're not blowing smoke. Securing Andrew Billings and Terrell Brooks the night before really changed the perception of a good class lacking in strength along the defensive interior to a top Big 12 group. The linebackers should be fun to watch between Travon Blanchard, Raaquan Davis and Xavier Phillips. Johnny Jefferson doesn't get the attention he deserves. This the best group Art Briles and his staff have ever brought to Waco.
-- Kevin Lonnquist, senior writer

This class shows just how serious Art Briles is about winning a Big 12 championship at Baylor and why he turns down other programs pursuing a new head coach. The offense will always be dynamic under Briles, but this class is heavy on defenders. Of the 23 signees, 15 of them (65 percent) are destined to play defense. Briles obviously understands that his defense must improve to make a jump to the next level, and this class could be the catalyst for that transformation. Having said all that, Briles still landed the offensive recruit he might've wanted most, WR Robbie Rhodes, he got an interesting QB that while unproven has a ton of upside (Chris Johnson), and a running back (Johnny Jefferson) that perfectly fits his offense. And that's the thing about Briles that should elate Baylor fans the most. He doesn't recruit players graded highly by other recruiting services. He recruits players that he and his staff evaluate as fits for their system. And with this class more than any in the past, Briles and company are winning the battles for those recruits.
-- Jake Shaw, staff writer



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